Of Cabbages and Kings

How many people are genuinely excited to find cabbage on a menu? Not stuffed cabbage rolls or cabbage with corned beef, but just cabbage, dense green leaves alone, sans modifiers. In the US, I’d wager that number would fall somewhere in the lowest possible percentile rank, but that’s only because of inexperience taming the brassica. Take a trip out to Taiwan though, and you’d see very different polling results. Elevating a more diverse range of lesser loved greens as some might honor fine cuts of meat, the dining scene treats vegetables with much greater respect simply by default. Every crop is treasured, allowed to shine in their own rights, and that’s where I first truly discovered my affinity for the humble cabbage.

Stir-fried on the hot teppanyaki grill that stretches in a horseshoe around mad scrambling chefs in the center, huge piles of shredded greenery wilt down into compact piles instantly. Intense heat sears the bottom, locking in a light touch of char, smoky and dark, while the upper leaves steam into meltingly soft submission. With a front seat to the full show, I watched rapt, the drama unfolding hot and heavy before my eyes. In a sudden plot twist, no more than five minutes after placing the initial order, the hot foil in front of me was filled with steaming strands of silky greenery, theoretically keeping warm for prolonged enjoyment but devoured just as quickly as it had been completed.

How could plain, ugly old cabbage taste so good? It was almost infuriating how delicious this completely ungarnished dish was. There were no tricks, not even MSG to bolster it, and yet I had never experienced anything like it before.

Everything comes down to ingredients, of course. Since there are so few of them, every last addition makes a huge impact, right down to the quality of the beans going into the soy sauce. Most essential is selecting Taiwanese cabbage, which is different from more common savoy, white, red, or standard North American green. Flat, smooth, and the size of a small kitchen appliance, it’s not uncommon for them to weigh in at 6 pounds a head or more. Much sweeter and more crisp than most drab coleslaw fodder, it has the integrity to speak for itself in such a bold feature. Head to your local international market and ask for Li-Sun cabbage or Li-Sun Sweet cabbage if you’re struggling to pin one down.

From there, season with a deft hand. Remember that everything else is used to amplify the greenery here, not cover it up. It’s hard to explain the incredible depth of this dish without actually placing a few sizzling strands of it directly into your mouth, but I’ll resist. For that first, doubtful attempt, it takes a bit of blind trust, but you’ll understand that magnetic attraction once that alchemical transformation happens right before your plate.

Yield: 4 - 6 Servings

Stir-Fried Taiwanese Cabbage

Stir-Fried Taiwanese Cabbage

Cabbage like you've never tasted before. Tender, rich, and almost buttery, this fast stir-fry will change the way you think about the humble green leaves.

Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 5 minutes
Total Time 10 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 Tablespoon Avocado or Peanut Oil
  • 2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
  • 1 Pound Taiwanese Cabbage, Sliced into 1/2-Inch Wide Ribbons
  • 1 Tablespoon Light Soy Sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon Shaoxing Rice Wine Vinegar
  • 1 Teaspoon Sugar
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes (Optional)
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Salt

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, and cook for a few seconds until aromatic and lightly browned. Stir in the cabbage until all the pieces are thoroughly coated in oil before covering the pan. Let cook, undisturbed, for 1 minute.
  2. Sprinkle in the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, red pepper flakes (if using) and salt all at once, increasing the heat to high, and cook until the cabbage is tender; 2 - 4 minutes. Serve immediately.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

6

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 50Total Fat: 3gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 2gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 276mgCarbohydrates: 6gFiber: 2gSugar: 3gProtein: 1g
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Noodle of the Sea

A curious craze if there ever was one, kelp noodles have gained popularity in leaps and bounds, going from unheard oddity to pantry staple for many overnight. Though still a more difficult ingredient to procure, ever since I discovered one fateful package at a local international market, rather than an expensive specialty shop, they’ve been showing up on my plate more often.

Finding them mixed amongst the bottles of soy sauce and bean paste was inspiring, not only due to the substantially lower price. Despite their typically raw preparations, these chewy, translucent seaweed strands are a perfectly tasty ingredient for cooked dishes, and in fact, may be more palatable warm. A brief sauté seems to relax the tightly wound noodles, making them more like starch-based cellophane noodles or sweet potato dangmyeon. With this realization, it became crystal clear that these particular kelp we destined to become japchae.

Switching out the traditional beef for thinly sliced seitan, the dish came together in a snap. Packing in the fresh vegetables for a lighter rendition, this is the perfect dish for bridging the gap between winter and spring. Bright and colorful, the sheer variety of flavors and textures makes for a highly satisfying eating experience. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to japchae, so consider my instructions more as guidelines. The best additions are what’s in season and what’s on hand. Consider switching in some sliced asparagus and fresh snow peas to really celebrate spring, or give chopped kale a shot rather than the standard spinach. Of course, if kelp noodles still elude you, the traditional dried and cooked cellophane noodles are always a welcome swap.

Kelp Noodle Japchae

1 12-Ounce Package Kelp Noodles, Drained and Soaked Water with a Splash of Vinegar for 15 Minutes

2 Tablespoons Toasted Sesame Oil, Divided
8 Ounces Seitan, Thinly Sliced

1/2 Medium Yellow Onion, Thinly Sliced
1 Teaspoon Finely Minced Fresh Ginger
1 Clove Garlic, Finely Minced
6 – 8 Rehydrated Dried Shiitake Mushrooms, Stems Removed, and Thinly Sliced (Soaking Liquid Reserved)
1/2 Cup Sliced Fresh Cremini or Button Mushrooms
1 – 2 Small Carrots, Julienned
1 Red Bell Pepper, Julienned

3 Tablespoons Tamari or Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Light Agave Nectar
1 Tablespoon Mirin
1/4 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
6 Ounces Fresh Spinach
1 Scallion, Thinly Sliced
2 – 3 Persian Cucumbers, cut into 2-inch julienne

Toasted Black or White Sesame Seeds (Optional)

While the kelp noodles are soaking (which helps to soften them up a bit,) heat 1 tablespoon of the sesame oil in a large skillet. Once hot, toss in the seitan, and sauté for about 5 – 8 minutes until the pieces are all nicely browned. Move the seitan onto a plate, and let rest while you move on to the remainder of the stir-fry. Start draining the kelp noodles at this point so that they’re not sopping wet when you need them.

Add the remaining sesame oil to the pan, and start by adding in the onion, ginger, and garlic. Cook until the onion is translucent and highly aromatic. Toss in the mushrooms, carrots, and pepper, along with about 1/4 cup of the reserved shiitake soaking liquid, and cook for another 8 – 10 minutes, until all the veggies are softened but still crisp. Mix together the tamari, agave, mirin, and pepper, and pour the mixture into the skillet, stirring to incorporate. Add in the kelp noodles and cook for 3 – 4 minutes, to allow the flavorful liquids to become assimilated. Finally, toss in the spinach, and cook for only 30 seconds or so to lightly wilt the greens. If using kale or any heartier greens, give it another minute or so to become tender. Turn off the heat and stir in the scallion and cucumber. Top with sesame seeds if desired. Enjoy hot or let cool and eat as a salad.

Makes About 4 Servings

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